I brought what I knew about the world to my daily life and it failed me. I brought senseless accidents and a depravity sprung inside the jaw. Also I brought what I had learned of love, an air of swift entrance and exit, a belief in trouble and desire. It will amount to something I was told, and I was told to hold fast to decency, to be spotlit and confident. I was told next year’s words await another voice.
Joanna Klink, Excerpts from a Secret Prophecy
And just as the Earth one day stood in its vacuum of space and decided to spin, Miwa starts thinking, suddenly, about how the clouds look in the winter, knowing that they would part for anyone with any idea how to carry themself. Bones cracked. Filled with love. She thinks about Kazuyo and how he once had two hands not made to be empty. Tobio and how he had almost grown up alone. He did not know what loss was until it had blinded him— in a subtler way, her too. How many different outcomes there could’ve else been for them both. The casket could’ve been cedar, cherry; as inevitable the casket was, no matter what wood. Tobio’s fingers could’ve been smooth surfaces, uncalloused, his insides hollow; and yet it’s all, miserably, too late to turn back.
DECEMBER 22, 1996; 9:20 PM. — WE CELEBRATE THE BIRTH OF A NEW SON, KAGEYAMA TOBIO. 50 CM, 3 KG.
Snow falls in bell-ring instances, melts on her face, makes her ears numb and her nose red. It was the winter solstice those mere four days ago, Miwa had checked, the sun having entered Capricorn just a day prior. Frigid. The days are shorter and the nights collect the lost time like a broom. She likes the way the magazines at the convenience stores tell her horoscope, likes even more that she has two to check, now.
Tobio is perfect, as far as she’s concerned, with his soybean-sized toes and his eyes, wide as can be. The nurse says it’s not often a baby focuses on objects so soon, so Miwa knows he must be special. He has to be— maybe a secret prince or a vampire, a long lost hero of war. Or maybe he’s just a healthy baby boy, with a little face and little hands and a heart ready to fulfill, special as is. Her little brother.
Those same eyes— the wide ones, the slate ones that look blue given the right lighting— are pointed right at her from where he lies in the plastic bassinet, taking in everything, drinking in the way she looks under the nauseating hospital light and the color of her coat. Memorizing her, for when her new becomes familiar. Their mother asks if she wants to hold him.
“Yeah,” She says, nodding, one breath behind, and the nurse plucks him up, this tiny thing, and places him in her arms.
His skin is soft. He is so, so small. He has the lightest coat of black hair across the top of his head, down to shield his forehead. He squirms, only slightly, some pre-movement, some fear, some novelty he is sure to relive and get used to. She can feel his heartbeat, strong and commanding, on her palms.
“Hi, Tobio,” Her voice is a mere whisper, deathly afraid to scare him. He’s so small and fragile and she feels so large, like a monster, so terrified to break. Gently. Gently. “I’m your big sister, Miwa.”
He doesn’t smile or say a word in response, since he is, after all, only four days old— but he reaches out slowly, ever so slowly, with his tiny hand attached to his tiny arm, grabs her finger resting on his side, and brings his fist back to his chest.
“Hi,” She says again, and he makes a noise against her skin. It sounds a little like a gargle and a lot like joy.
I love you , Miwa thinks, all because she is only eight. She has nothing to give, like her parents or her grandfather or the nurse in the blue smock dress. She has no clothes or home or food for his belly, no blankets or pacifiers or money to buy him his own horoscope. She is only eight with nothing to give, nothing at all, but she has always known love.
I love you , She thinks again, like a mantra, I will never let anything happen to you. I love you, and I will not let the world hurt you. I will not let you take the tides alone. I love you.
Being born into a family split between the chase for the sun and the unrelenting desire to dig yourself deep into the Earth— work extra hours every day of every week— leaves Miwa somewhere in the middle, stranded. Her grandfather helps her fill in her math problem pages and cooks her dinner. Drives her to and from volleyball practice, buys her birthday presents. And then now, of course, there’s Tobio.
It makes her blood roar to think about him. About the way he will grow big and strong, hold onto things, grasp at loose straws until he’s built himself into a scarecrow from that one movie, the American one, about tornadoes and wizards and a tinman with no heart. Tobio can’t be the tinman because he smiles at Miwa when she stares at him, because he picks up her volleyball with his grubby little fingers, because he looks gentle in orange and diplomatic in black.
Miwa watches him gnaw on the leather surface of the ball, digging teeth marks into the rounded edge. Balls don’t really have edges, since they are perfect spheres, but Miwa likes to imagine a world where they do. Where Tobio won’t have to walk outside one day, won’t have to learn that it’s weird for his grandpa to be the only person posing with them in photo albums and for her to end up his third parent. Where she still knows he’s perfect, still has that look in his eyes— the one that tells her he will go places, will reach heights beyond her vision, but she won’t fear his downfall.
She’s so afraid. She can’t tell anyone.
“Hey!” Miwa’s voice is shrill from her throat and Kazuyo almost trips on his way from the kitchen. “Who gave Tobio my ball?”
She had, obviously. She had rolled it to him absentmindedly, let him take it, to see what he would make out of it. Slobbered all over it, as babies do.
Kazuyo makes an attempt to pull the ball from his grip, but Tobio holds onto it with the strength of a thousand-man army, and Miwa wants to scream. Let go! She’d say, Before it’s too late! Before they figure you out!
She’s still somewhere in the middle. Does she like the way her feet are firm in the soil, leaving footprints behind? Does she think too hard about her parents' long hours and the stories her friends tell? What did her last horoscope say?— Something about going after what you want. Something about new love.
Does Tobio have to let go of the ball at all? The path ahead is cruel and unforgiving. She hears no other footsteps behind her. It’s definitely going to have teeth marks she won’t be able to scrub out.
If Miwa’s in the middle, trekking her way up the mountain, where would that leave Tobio? Down at the bottom, making attempts just to slip back again? Climbing his way up the trees? Calling for her? Her hands find leverage after Kazuyo gives up the fight, and she pulls the ball from her baby brother’s hands. He sniffles, eyes water, hands begin to make grabbing motions in the air. Where would that leave him?
She figures out, very quickly afterward, that Tobio was never trying to take to the mountain paths at all. She watches him bounce his soft volleyball off the gym wall, three years old and no less in love than he was from that first moment, smack it so hard it practically leaves a chip in the paint. Doesn’t stop. Grabs the ball. Aims. Throws. Hits it again. Messes up. Hits it.
He had already been given mountains. Bam. Had stepped over her in one stride. Bam. He was never made to wander, search for other answers, not like her. Bam. Kageyama Tobio was made to run.
Capricorn (Dec. 22 - Jan. 19) Horoscope for January 25, 2008: A major planet enters your sign today. Take charge of a situation knowing that much is out of control. You are walking a fine line between good company and disapproval. Note a tendency to move a lot when you are tense. If possible, detach from power plays or demanding situations. Learn to support yourself more often, knowing someday you will not have to take this load alone. Someone, somewhere, is looking for you. Tonight: A grand reveal.
Their mother takes them to a hot spring as an apology for not being there for Miwa’s eighteenth birthday or her graduation. Or the antecedent birthdays. Or any important turning point of her life. She doesn’t have it in her to be angry. She gets to share a room with Tobio, anyway, and it’s nice. He sleeptalks about recent games.
The two of them are in the family bath while their mom takes work calls in the alley across the way. A towel hangs around her while she dangles her feet in the water, the occasional bubble leaving a sweeping motion against her ankles, calves. It’s warm and quiet and she’s happy where she is, in comfortable silence while Tobio ducks his head up and under, drenches his hair and comes out with his eyes crinkled. She wants to tell him off, he’s going to get dizzy, but she can tell he’s having fun. She doesn’t have it in her to be angry with her mother or to be strict with Tobio. The air is too fresh, atmosphere too thick with steam. Mind too preoccupied.
“Hey, Nee-san,” Tobio starts out of nowhere, fishes a hand out from under the water, rings his hair out with it. Palm, fingers, knuckles. Diligence built into his framework. “Whenever someone falls back onto the court, I pick them up, right? I save them. Every time. Because it’s my court, my team, and I'm responsible for what happens to it and the people on it.”
Miwa watches Tobio wade carefully out of the pool, all slate eyes and dark hair and pride. Fear. One and the same. She can tell he’s been thinking, tilts her head in question.
“But what if one day, I fall back onto the court?” He turns to rest on the tile edge of the bath, feet kicking gentle ripples in the water next to her. His gaze into the distance is contemplative, thoughtful, and Miwa is still. “Who’s going to be there to save me?”
Your team, obviously. It echoes in her head on instinct, but she knows it’s not the right answer. Not the thing Tobio would want to hear, not as he is now. She looks at him, already bigger and stronger than she thought he’d ever be, only ten and wanting to face the world head on. He had reached peaks she didn’t want to look up at.
“You,” Miwa says, because she knows he will. Because he already has.
Their mother wanders in from the alley moments later. “What do you guys want?”
“For dinner. What do you want?”
“Oh. Hm,” Some freedom. A split in the path. Options. Answers. Tobio to end up the person I can’t be. “Are there any noodle shops nearby?”
Miwa decides on a random Tuesday, seemingly out of the blue, that she’s tired. Tired of getting questioning gazes from her teammates when she pulls her hair back. Tired of waiting to smack the ball against a wall and have the crowd boo her because it’s just not quite right. Tired of watching her brother do the same thing and love it every time, no matter how many he messes up.
“Just cut it,” Her boyfriend tells her. He’s her first and he’s pretty, really pretty, with soft smooth skin and hair that rests around his jaw in a way she envies. She wishes she was him, in whatever all encompassing teenage love dictates as such, but also wants to kiss him silly. “That’s stupid. You’re just being stubborn.”
She doesn’t cut her hair. She quits volleyball instead, keeps her hair long, past her shoulders so she has to brush it out of her eyes. She likes to braid it and put it in buns and tie it up like she sees models do. She buys an eyeshadow palette with fourteen colors for her birthday, from the convenience store where she reads her and Tobio’s horoscopes. Kazuyo tells her that nobody knows what is and isn’t important to you more than you do, and she watches Tobio’s eyes light up like hers never had, not in the same way.
Miwa decides on that Tuesday afternoon, not out of the blue at all, that she likes her hair. She’s tired of sticks poking into her calves and the wandering eyes of judgment that creep in the shadows. She likes her hair and her eyeshadow palette. She likes her horoscopes and yet there are no words that matter, for once, besides her own. She will become her own path. She will become her own volleyball.
Bam, say her makeup brushes and her hair ties. Bam, she says back.
Miwa thinks Tobio must have some idea that their grandfather is dying.
He has been standing his whole life in the wake of some ghost, of himself, of the future — because Tobio has never wanted anything more than to love and be loved, nothing but the feeling of his fingertips on leather, eyes turned numb because they refuse to close for a split second, in case he misses a single play. He has only wanted to share his love of volleyball with someone, all of it, the overwhelming intensity of it, and the only person that has, truly, is dwindling into a hollow shell of bone. Leaving nothing behind, standing in his place.
Nothing but the promise of the journey, one foot in front of the other, toe to heel, one step slotted in front of the last. Nothing but some advice and a special interest and a curry recipe and a childhood that would’ve else been frozen.
This is why Tobio has to know he’s dying, Miwa is certain— because nothing ever feels quite as lost as when someone takes it from you.
And then, when it happens, with all the grace of a child falling headfirst down the stairs, Tobio is silent.
The day their grandfather dies he is laid bare in the hands of time and gives himself; all for them to mold his body into a fully formed Australian tea tree, broken at the spine, arms twisted behind his back. He does not bleed. He does not cry. He does not speak.
Instead, he sits. He waits. For the universe to do something. For them to find him a ball-shaped trinket like an answer. And Miwa knows, all because she has never seen a world as poetic as him, that this is not the silence of a man who is afraid that crying will make him look weak. This is a child playing someone who has had to grow up faster than his body. The devils here are vast and plenty.
It feels weird to her, too. A caricature of reality.
The weight of all the emotions you keep to yourself must be heavy, she thinks, as she watches him drag a hand over the casket. It’s not open. Talk to me. Tell me. Let them go.
People have always asked too much of him, so Miwa decides that she will not ask him for anything. The very offer of pity is often the end-all.
She does not beg him to speak, no matter that she wants to. She does not wipe his tears away. She drives him home in hush and lets him sit in her arms on the floor; something he hasn’t done since he was small. There is a jingle playing in the background, but there’s no telling what it is. Their parents will not come home for four hours, and Tobio’s hands still have lines. Lines that give way for the calluses of hard work she knows he lives for. The beach and the wild waves of sea are still. The sand rolls on in mid-course.
“Everything will be alright,” Miwa hears fall out of her mouth. She doesn’t know who she’s giving it to.
When Miwa moves out, she worries she won’t be able to see the white grow in Tobio’s hair. She won’t see him fall in love or get gold at the Olympics and she won’t watch him crash and burn when the weight of the world rests itself on his shoulders. She won’t be there to tell him it’s okay, that he’s only young, that there’s time. So she comes home every weekend she can and cooks him dinner, and if sometimes he cries into the meal at least she is there.
It’s not her fault. It’s not her fault that he cries into his food. But it is her fault if he eats them alone, so she promises herself: every weekend. Every weekend.
Capricorn (Dec. 22 - Jan. 19) Horoscope for May 15, 2011 - Befriend the friendless. Be careful not to get too bold, for the people around you may take this as dictatorship, not kind-hearted advice. Act in haste, repent in leisure. A tendency to jump headfirst into the pursuit of your ambitions could be counterproductive. It isn’t likely that you’ll have as much latitude as last time. Ask yourself: how cold is your heart today? How cold is his? Tonight: An awakening.
Tobio comes back from a game one day empty, the burden of death following him like a shadow. Miwa knows what loss looked like for Tobio, all blank expression and puffy eyes and water that won’t spillover. This, this in all its entirety. Loss.
“What do you do,” Tobio asks, cheeks almost green, melancholy a forever friend. “When you love something so much you lose it?”
Miwa leaves a half-breath between his question and her response, a moment to think. She puts down the plate she’s washing, allows the suds to run down in between her fingers, listens to the plunk of them on the floor. The dish soap scent is different here than it is at the university dorms, and their family house has always smelled like something close to the end of a hospital hallway. She wonders if Tobio had ever noticed the difference between the bleach brands on the bus ride home from visits, if instead he had learned to ignore it.
The analog clock perched precariously on the wall announces that it’s almost eight. The Earth, ever-spinning, screams something unintelligible back. No words from her would ever be able to bring things back from the dead— Kazuyo, volleyball, or otherwise. The second-hand ticks.
“You wait for it to come find you again.”
Tobio had always been a little different. Just slightly more in tune with the unnoticed— How he sat and where it was okay to touch him. He liked it when she played with his hair, the lack-spin of it, the silken strands a still typhoon, waning, but his hands were off-limits. Sensations and feeling, a court guided by a grid system and the feeling of fingers on leather. It made him sensitive to little things; tape and hugs and sweet potato texture, and while Miwa didn’t quite understand, she tried to.
She watches him grasp his backpack straps with his school-boy hands, push his fingers together to stretch. People thought it was weird, that he didn’t have any video games and his grandfather was his best friend. But whereas Miwa, in the light of these instances, would crawl into herself, he just meandered on. Each individual word, seemingly another step in the opposite direction, was actually a calculated move towards a goal. What people said had no place in his journey forward.
And then Miwa thinks about how he forced his head back around when he was thirteen and ran from himself in the midst— tried to become something he wasn’t, could never be. She wishes she had run away from the shadows for the both of them; picked Tobio up by the collar or the root of his hair and let them be swallowed up in the sound of hospital bustle and bleacher cheers.
There are things that could’ve been, for both of them, she knows. How much easier they would be. She thinks maybe now is when Tobio would like to hear her say your team, obviously.
And yet since God, the universe, the stars are all cruel, the world will flip you on your head just to watch you wobble when you get back on your feet. She wants to ask him, wants to know, has to—
What is in your body that used to be blood? Tobio, what were you? What are you now?
Miwa’s first real job is to fill in for her classmate while she’s out sick, just trimming people’s hair for a little bit of cash to get her through school. She likes the way each person’s locks feel slightly different under her fingers, pretends she’s sixteen and it’s all Tobio’s. Parts it in a three-fold center, just for a moment, before pulling her head out of the mud and combing it normally. The customers thank her when they leave.
She still likes her hair. She still likes her eyeshadow palette. Bam, the walls of the salon echo. Bam, she says back.
“I am the most miserable god in heaven, Miwa,” Tobio says to her in a dream, random in its nature, the first time she’s ever heard her name from his mouth. He begins stabbing at the dirt with a shovel. The most miserable god in heaven, wounded soldier, broken boy. King, only crowned because he was the one who cared the most.
She’s careful with her words. She will help him. She has to help him. “What are you looking for?”
“The thing I lost.”
“And what did you lose?”
“I’m…” He stumbles at the handle, loses his grip on the tool. It breaks a crack in thin topsoil and a swarm of ground creatures crawls out of it. He doesn’t seem to notice. “I’m not sure yet.”
And then his figure’s retreating. Falling into the abyss behind them, that she stares at while it stares back. She’s vaguely aware that this dream is taking Tobio from her, but there’s a weight missed at her shoulder and a caress in its place. A head of bright hair pops up out of the dirt, the same hole Tobio made by accident. Tobio rematerializes, drops his shovel, and Miwa is watching through a one-way mirror. Miwa is the abyss that stares back when you look too long.
“Where have you been?” She hears the captor whisper against Tobio’s cheek, and his hair is on fire and his soul flames, alight, matching.
Tobio smiles down at him. His hands are unchained, instead rest freely in the palms of this boy. A blush spreads the expanse of his face like a river valley in the summer or the constellation of Cancer or a rose garden at the peak of its season. “I was always waiting here. Waiting for you.”
No, She wants to scream, like she’s seven all over again and he’s no more than a concept, some words her mother repeats to her from behind the kitchen counter, I have to keep him safe! Before they figure him out! And yet that hand’s still at her shoulder, a grip so like her own, and she hears her voice, her own whisper close in her ear; This is his joy. Do you want to take that from him, Miwa?
She wakes up before she has the chance to answer.
Tobio comes to her, that day, and speaks in a tone she hasn’t heard in a long, long time.
“There’s someone that wants to play with me,” He says, and she can tell he’s a little shaky. “There are a few people that want to play with me, actually,” He thumbs at the place where the lock fits into the frame of the door. “But there’s someone that wants to help me pick myself up off the court.”
Your team, obviously.
It’s all she can do to not collapse into tears, down her face, across her neck. She stands up, out of her desk chair and he sits, resting with his back to the furthest wall, looking up at her, a tremor in his shoulders and a smile on his face. It is so gentle. He is laying in a plastic bassinet.
“I told you,” Miwa is vaguely aware of a grin etched into her own skin, across the expanse of her own face, all the way from cheek to cheek. They match. They mirror. Two siblings cut from the same cloth. “I told you, Tobio. I told you so.”
She’s expecting some response, a burst of anger that always came right after an I told you so, the ones so familiar, but it never does show.
“Yeah,” He’s still smiling. Miwa can’t remember the last time that was more than a passing moment. “Yeah, you told me so.”
He’s five, looking up at Miwa with all the awe in the world and reciting the alphabet back to her. a, i, u, e, o. ka, ki, ku, ke, ko. Good job, Tobio. Next line? sa, shi, su, se, so. Kazuyo’s coming in from the backyard. ta, chi, tsu, te, to. A fire’s roaring. na, ni, nu, ne, no.
Miwa glances over at where he now sits on the couch, repeating words aloud from his English textbook. Rubber. Laundry. Volleyball. Facility. Little boy in a big boy costume. Pigeon. Object. King. Divide. She smiles and meanders up to the heater. Brother. Fork. Trustworthy. Garage. Presses power. Grandfather. Fog. Skin. Love. A fire’s roaring.
“What would you do if you weren’t playing volleyball?” Miwa asks, one day, sitting across from Tobio in some restaurant she can’t remember the name of.
He shakes his head, like the concept of a world where he can’t wield a volleyball like a weapon is some affront to him. “Coaching.”
“What would you coach?”
She laughs at that. He’s still young, under it all, enamored with blue and yellow and the smell of waxed wood from the gym floor. “Okay, but volleyball doesn’t exist in this world. Who would you be?” She thinks this question is probably a better one, rather than something so useless as what would you do. Tobio is volleyball, just as volleyball is Tobio.
“I don’t know,” His face contorts. “Why would volleyball not exist? I guess I’ve never thought about it. What would Kazuyo have done?”
She huffs lightheartedly. “I should’ve asked him this question before, too, damn it.”
“It’s okay,” Tobio's voice has always had a ring to it, something nostalgic, melancholy. He’s twenty-one now, grown in his body that is still just a boy’s under it all, but he will always have that something, even when he’s made of broken memories. Something familiar. “I’m sure, no matter what it was,” He swallows his bite. “I’d have still found Hinata and my team. And I think I’d have still been happy.”
Capricorn (Dec. 22 - Jan. 19) Horoscope for November 17, 2018 - You will forever be a monster. I have the right to tell you that it is not a bad thing to be, that you simply have to wait for people to look through you instead of at you. You have been beautiful since you were young, but I know it took you a while to get here. I’ve loved you for every half-self that you were before. Play. Run. Fight. Tonight: A feast fit for a king.
She starts thinking, again, about how the clouds look in the winter. In a world where give and take is balance and proportion, where the polarity of such can throw the world off its axis, Tobio has always waited for the right moment to strike. She thinks about Kazuyo and how he had raised them without complaint. Tobio and how he was too big for her to protect. His genius had to claw itself out of him, and then it had to carry him. Because grief wouldn’t and anger couldn’t and loneliness is a monstrous burden to bear.
Miwa’s never been too grounded, but she’s always loved Tobio. She knows, distantly, that someone other than herself had decided that it’s never too late to turn back to the sun, grabbed Tobio’s hand and pretended the past was no more than a vague memory.
There were people that took him, for every part of his worth, for every single feeling that dredged itself out from his stomach and his heart and his mind. That took him for his scowls and his smiles and his halfway-in-betweens. They know who he was, what name he’d made for himself, for the demons he had yet to conquer. Figured him out, before she could stop them.
It’s hard to not love him, really, when you realize he is just learning to navigate a body with arms too lanky and legs too long, when you find out he used to cry himself to sleep, when you wish you could’ve drawn circles into his scalp and parted his hair six different ways.
Because he was eight and twelve and fifteen and twenty-one. Because he’s Kageyama Tobio, boy-king, without a single bad bone in his body. Because above it all, without even knowing it, you have believed in him for a very long time.
He loses, and Alisa hisses from the chair. “Oh, I’m sorry, Miwa.”
She watches his face in the background, a smile so wide she’s worried it’ll crack his skin in half. He’s shaking hands. He’s staring at a mop of bright orange hair.
“No, no,” She waves it off. “He’ll get it next time.”
But as I walked I saw crows ripping at shapes on the street, a square of sunlight flare on the roof. Take my hand, if only here and not in the time that remains for us to spend together. We will stand and watch the most delicate weathers move, second by second, through the grim neighborhood. I will lean into you, who have loved me in your way, knowing where you are and what you care for.
Joanna Klink, Excerpts from a Secret Prophecy